Trailer Stash: A long-hidden trove of art found in rural Missouri could be worth a small fortune

The leaves were barely on the trees this past spring in northeastern Missouri, and Jason Geisendorfer was driving around Lewistown wasting time and feeling guilty about it. The 41-year-old construction worker hadn't had a paycheck in two years, ever since he injured his back on the job and workers' compensation refused to cover the $300,000 surgery his injury required. Geisendorfer was locked in a legal battle with his employer's compensation plan, and his wife and three kids were living off dwindling savings. They could hardly afford to have him driving aimlessly around town wasting gas.

Yet the idleness of his forced unemployment was almost as bothersome as the slipped disc in his back. A workaholic and constant tinkerer who wears his long brown hair pulled into a ponytail and sports a horseshoe mustache spilling down his chin, Geisendorfer was going stir-crazy at home. So it was on this May morning that he found himself driving down a street he rarely travels, just a block and a half from his house. There, off to the side, he saw it: a derelict trailer surrounded by corroding washing machines, rabbit cages and lawnmowers. In the far back of the yard sat another decaying mobile home and a rusting old school bus barely visible through the trees and reedy overgrowth sprouting up from the lawn.

"Just a nasty mess," Geisendorfer recalls of the scene that day.

The trailer as Geisendorfer discovered it in May of this year. See the paintings: The Unearthed Paintings of Virginia Terpening
courtesy Jason Geisendorfer
The trailer as Geisendorfer discovered it in May of this year. See the paintings: The Unearthed Paintings of Virginia Terpening
The Christian Church of Lewistown looks very similar today as it did in the 1940s. See the paintings: The Unearthed Paintings of Virginia Terpening
The Christian Church of Lewistown looks very similar today as it did in the 1940s. See the paintings: The Unearthed Paintings of Virginia Terpening

As he drove off, Geisendorfer thought to himself: Someone ought to clean that place up.

A couple of weeks later, as he was driving past the mobile home again, he watched as a woman pulled her car onto the property. Geisendorfer stopped his pickup and hollered out the window.

"Do you know who owns this place?"

"I do," replied the woman with long silver hair. "It was my mother's. I inherited it."

The two got to talking, and Geisendorfer eventually asked if she'd be willing to sell the property. A few weeks later he had himself a deal: $600 for the trailers, the bus and the two quarter-acre lots on which they sat. Before they shook hands on it, Geisendorfer says he asked if the woman wanted any personal effects he found that might have belonged to her mother. No, the woman replied, but hinted that there may be some antiques worth something littered among the debris.

Geisendorfer's plan was to scrap or sell anything of value and then try to resell the property for $3,000 — his first real income in nearly two years. To keep his teenage daughters busy during the summer, Geisendorfer offered to give them a third of the resale value. Within a few weeks the girls scrapped $530 worth of metal just from junk in the lawn. While the girls toiled in the yard, Geisendorfer began rummaging through the trailers and school bus. Sorting the mess proved to be more of an undertaking than he had first thought.

"Raccoons had been living inside, and kids had also gotten in there and vandalized the place. It was full of dirty dishes and trash. The woman who'd been living there, I'd say she was something of a hoarder. There were just boxes and boxes of stuff," says Geisendorfer.

Geisendorfer found old toys, jewelry and porcelain worth thousands of dollars that he polished up and took to antique dealers across the Mississippi River in Quincy, Illinois. The paintings that had been left in boxes on the bed he saved until later.

"I was planning on burning all the paintings," he says. "I figured it was a bunch of grandma art. Then I pulled the first painting out the box and was like, 'Whoa, that's pretty cool.'"

See the paintings: The Unearthed Paintings of Virginia Terpening

The 1946 oil painting was titled Gloomy Sunday, and it captured the scene of a pair of barns and barren, wind-blown trees under a bleak gray sky. Attached to the painting was a sticker indicating that the piece had exhibited at a juried show at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. Geisendorfer began pulling other paintings out, each one just as impressive as the last. By the time he'd unboxed them all, he figured he had 75 to 100 paintings by the artist Virginia Terpening. But who was she, and what were they worth?

Geisendorfer thought perhaps someone down in Hannibal might know, so he drove the half hour south to Mark Twain's stomping grounds and started asking around. No one at Hannibal's arts council had ever heard of Terpening or Virginia Baltzelle (as some of the work was signed). Same with the gallery owners around town, though one said that she would ask around and suggested he not destroy anything just yet.

Geisendorfer returned to the trailer and started looking for more. Under another bed in the mobile home he found dozens of additional paintings by Terpening. Closets inside the mobile home were brimming with even more. He took the pieces home and tallied them up. He was up to more than 300 paintings and was unearthing more everywhere he turned. In the back of the school bus he found a box containing an additional 212 pieces of art.

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7 comments
chica2270
chica2270

If this guy can't work, then how is he able to go and clean up property? That's pretty hard physical work...

ddfry3
ddfry3

Well done article, and the kind of writing I count on in RFT. Hope there's a follow-up, and that the St. Louis Art Museum acquires some works if it hasn't already.

Linda SansSouci
Linda SansSouci

Uplifting story. I hope for success of the sale, and also sharing with the daughter, even though she says she "doesn't need it." P.S. I like the paintings!

Frank May
Frank May

Great story. Would love to see a showing of her work.

Diana Cobos
Diana Cobos

Very interesting story. (I wish the daughter would get back a few of her mom´s paintings though.)

Suzanne Moak
Suzanne Moak

I was totally sucked in by this story. Fascinating.

 
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